When George W. Bush spoke to the United Nations on 12 September 2002 and threatened the world body with “irrelevance” if it did not grant him a license to invade Iraq, he achieved the opposite. Rather than becoming irrelevant, the UN proved that it could be the most important venue for resolving international conflicts. Very quickly, and at the direction of the Security Council, Hans Blix assembled an expert team that restarted weapons inspections throughout Iraq. In the opinion of almost the entire world, inspections were making significant progress toward Iraqi disarmament, even if progress on some issues was not as rapid as desired. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of the inspection process were considered infinitely preferable to the shortcomings of the other proposed method, war.
In recent months, the UN Security Council took on a prominence unprecedented since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. All of a sudden, the arcane and formal proceedings of the council gathered worldwide television audiences who followed each word and facial expression around the table.
If the council could not stop the United States from defying it and attacking Iraq, it at least prevented the US from gaining legitimacy and greater support for an unjust war. The absence of a Security Council endorsement means that the United States and the United Kingdom are effectively alone in their Iraqi adventure. That the United States would name as members of its “coalition,” such bastions of democracy and human rights as Albania, Uzbekistan and Georgia, and be unable to declare publicly the clandestine assistance of a small number of Arab governments whose identities are well-known, only underscores its isolation. The UN, therefore, proved that if it is not yet so, it can one day become a counterweight to the unilateralism of any single member. What undermines this is the weak and inconsistent leadership of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The statement he issued following the start of the war contains no forthright criticism of an action that seen by most of the world as an unlawful attack, a violation of the UN Charter and defiance of the Security Council.
Rather than call for an immediate ceasefire, as he should have forcefully done, Annan, in his 20 March statement, merely said, “Today, despite the best efforts of the international community and the United Nations, war has come to Iraq for the third time in a quarter of a century.” It is as if war were not the result of human decisions, but rather a bad spell of weather.
Underlining this passive approach, in which Annan transformed himself into a mere commentator, he said, “My thoughts today are with the Iraqi people, who face yet another ordeal. I hope that all parties will observe the requirements of international humanitarian law, and will do everything in their power to shield the civilian population from the grim consequences of war.”
The one sure way to do that would be an immediate halt to US bombing — which the United States has stated it is doing primarily for political and psychological purposes, rather than to achieve necessary military objectives.
With such “diplomatic” phrasing, Annan avoided stating that, in fact, by attacking Iraq the United States, the most powerful member of the United Nations, had acted against international law and the expressed will of the vast majority of the dozens of member states whose representatives spoke in the extensive Security Council debates on Iraq.
Annan went on to add, “Perhaps if we had persevered a little longer, Iraq could yet have been disarmed peacefully, or — if not — the world could have taken action to solve this problem through a collective decision, endowing it with greater legitimacy and therefore commanding wider support than is now the case.” Annan had previously stated his view that without explicit Security Council endorsement, the legality of a US attack on Iraq would be “seriously impaired.” Either the US attack on Iraq is legal or it is not legal. Annan has studiously avoided taking a position, resorting instead to formulas that are utterly devoid of content, but whose principal effect is to spare him Washington’s wrath. Worse still, Annan pleads, “But let us not dwell on the divisions of the past. Let us confront the realities of the present, however harsh, and look for ways to forge stronger unity in the future.”
Does Annan seriously believe that the start of the US attack on Iraq suddenly renders irrelevant the fundamental issues raised by most of the world, and articulated most forcefully by Russia, France and Germany? The question of US unilateralism is not a minor dispute that can simply be swept under the carpet, but one with profound consequences for the future of the globe. Annan may be ready accept the “harsh reality” of the dangerous and unilateral new US approach to the world, but clearly, courageous US diplomats and British government ministers who resigned on principle, millions of Americans and others still demonstrating all over the world, and most other governments, are not quite ready to give in so easily.
A survey of Annan’s statements in recent years indicates that there is scarcely a minor skirmish or a major conflict anywhere in the world, in which he has not openly called for a cease-fire or deplored in the strongest terms the resort to violence. By failing to do the same in the case of Iraq, Annan seems, in effect, to be acquiescing to, if not openly endorsing, the US attack on Iraq specifically, and the dangerous new doctrine of preemptive war more generally. Whatever successes the dedicated staff of the UN Secretariat and agencies may be achieving around the world, it is in spite, rather than because of, the weak leadership at the top.
This article first appeared in The Daily Star (Lebanon).